I received several messages from Robert Lee, the legendary cable-design guru at Acoustic Zen, politely but urgently requesting me to audition his proprietary cable-testing loudspeaker system – the Acoustic Zen Monitor Reference One.
Since I had, on one occasion, heard these solidly-built and attractive (polished rosewood) monitors, I did not comprehend the invitation’s special energy. After some delay, a result of workload overload and uncertainty about the exercise, I acquiesced and Lee showed off his newly refurbished monitors for me in his private listening quarters, a comfortable living-work space where he spends countless hours listening to the results of ongoing experiments with wire and cable configurations.
I was impressed, as I had been before, by the tonal purity of Robert Lee’s audio set up. Lee uses his own amplifier, the Zen Hologram, a 100 watt per channel, point-to-point wired mini-behemoth that excels in soundstaging accuracy and tonal purity, to drive the Monitor One speakers. He also uses his own pre-amplifier, the Zen Hologram Companion. But the point of the exercise when we got together was to hear the Monitor Ones and talk about revisions that Lee has made to his well-regarded line of Acoustic Zen cables.
Enjoy the Music.com™: Your monitor speakers are revealing without analytical harshness or reinforcement of artifacts that sometimes plague extremely revealing speakers.
Lee: I chose materials that are musical and I made the two-way design so it let’s me hear what my cable work really is doing!
Enjoy the Music.com™: The monitors, then, are useful tools as well as good sounding musical instruments.
Lee: (Laughing) You are right ! I need to hear everything, the slightest detail, for example, all of a single note’s overtones… [and] big instruments like trumpets plus small instrument sounds, a tambourine or African thumb piano. But I want beautiful sound, too! I love music.
Enjoy the Music.com™: Are you ready to manufacture these monitor speakers?
Lee: Not yet. I’m not sure when, but they let me do my work in a way that I think is special. Maybe someday I will.
Enjoy the Music.com™: Say something about that ‘work’?
Lee: When I started Acoustic Zen I decided to make cables that are personal for each system, custom-made for any audio system….
Enjoy the Music.com™: Customized?
Lee: Right… interconnect cables and speaker cables that can be modified to bring out the best in any home theater or stereo set up. So that’s what I’m doing.
Enjoy the Music.com™: And your point is?
Lee: The Monitor One reference speakers are totally neutral and any change I make in a cable can be heard immediately. Right now! It is not difficult to hear a small change in the cable so that I can custom-make or, how do you say this, tweak a customer’s cable so it gives the best sound for that system.
Enjoy the Music.com™: Do many customers request the tweaking you offer?
Lee: Not as many as I thought, but that is changing as people learn how great sound can be when I do custom work on their Acoustic Zen cables.
Enjoy the Music.com™: Have you learned anything recently, doing these customized tweaks, that adds to your knowledge about audio-video cables and cable design?
Lee: I learn every day. I really do, because this work is very important to me. I have worked with big companies and now
I have my own happy cable company. So I work long hours.
Enjoy the Music.com™: What have you learned recently?
Lee: (laughing) I won’t give you any secrets.
Enjoy the Music.com™: Go ahead.
Lee: No secrets, but I will tell you something. When I started Acoustic Zen I had many [design] ideas that I wanted to use. With every one of them I have learned how to push it further toward open, beautiful musical sound that I feel people want – that people who really love music want to hear!
Enjoy the Music.com™: Say a little more about that.
Lee: My ‘reference two’ series of interconnects and power cords and speakers cables hold my secrets inside them. Right there in changes I’ve made, one at a time, everything I’ve learned. I must tell you that half of what you learn working with wire is technical and not so interesting, really. But half is trial-and-error. That’s where I have fun. You listen and listen some more. There is no end to the listening and learning. I drive my wife Emily crazy because I listen so much and work too hard to make my best [possible] cables. All the time. I never stop.
Enjoy the Music.com™: Is it worth it?
Lee: Well, I think so. It’s not about money or anything like that because, for me, it’s about the art of sound, getting that as right as I can. [Cable-making] is an art, you know? Art more than science.
Enjoy the Music.com™: Are you satisfied with your new ‘reference two’ line of cables? I mean, satisfied in some genuine artistic sense?
Lee: Yes. I’m more pleased by these cables than anything I’ve ever done. People who listen very close and hard, they tell me I am right to be pleased.
Enjoy the Music.com™: You won’t share a few of the tricks or secrets that have made these cables your best ever?
Lee: No, but I will let you listen to them and hear for yourself.
Enjoy the Music.com™: You mentioned on the phone that the ‘reference two’ cables worked together as a system. What did you mean?
Lee: First, each cable — digital and speaker and interconnect — can be made exactly right for each sound system. They all can be made just about perfect for a person’s audio system. Maybe that’s a surprise to you, but I promise they can be made to work together and then they are a musical component in that system.
Enjoy the Music.com™: Some people just want to buy cables and plug them into a home set up. Bang, done. No fuss. No delay.
Lee: Right. I know. That’s why I try so hard to make all of my cables musical in the first place. Music comes first!
Enjoy the Music.com™: But?
Lee: The person who has a good A/V system or maybe a great sound system can let me know what they think can be better. I tell them, please listen to my cables in your system. Take notes. Tell me what you hear. Then I work with them to do that. We make their sound better. Much better. You see, Acoustic Zen cables are made with the very best pure silver and copper — long-grain ‘single’ crystals that are very, very transparent [delivering sound]. The long crystal structure is really like having no crystal at all. Zero crystal. The wire we use does not hamper my work to deliver fast, clear, accurate musical bundles. In fact, it helps me.
Enjoy the Music.com™: Bundles… an interesting term.
Lee: So I do tweaks (laughs) after I create the most perfect cable design I know how to make. Custom work just makes everything better after that. More real, more alive, more like live music.
Enjoy the Music.com™: And, I take it, your ‘system’ approach means that music is kept somehow ‘whole’ or ‘integrated’ across its full run through your cables. Is that it?
Lee: Yes, but more than that. I know how to make adjustments to each cable. Loudspeaker cable [for example] is different than digital cable. So when someone has a whole Acoustic Zen ‘Reference Two’ cable system, they have cables that work like music in a sound system. They can all be ‘tweaked’ (laughs) to get everything out of the audio system… and that person has great music and not just big sound or something dramatic but not really like music, not beautiful or refined!
Enjoy the Music.com™: You’ve made some fairly ‘refined’ points there, I think. What do you mean by ‘dramatic’ sound?
Lee: It’s like a cartoon. You hear audio systems that are powerful and also expensive, but they sound like a circus. The sound is not real. It’s not like live music at a concert or even in a studio. It’s too big and not real at all, like a punch in your head or maybe in your ear (laughs). Too much of one sonic part, you know, and no sonic balance. Then you get cartoon sound. Big but [it’s] not real.
Enjoy the Music.com™: You mean by ‘part’ something like a small but distinct portion of the audio spectrum?
Lee: Yes. All parts of sound must be present; the whole of what we can hear from the low lows to the highest highs. That is how music presents itself in the concert hall. Right?
Enjoy the Music.com™: So let me recap all this. You’re saying that your cable design philosophy intends to create ‘balanced sound’ that, at the same time, is extended to the upper octaves and to the bottom octaves, and this allows for a subtle, coherent, and not overly dynamic musical soundstage. Do I have that right?
Lee: That’s close. I am trying to tell you something hard to talk about. I believe that musical sound is delicate… very delicate. Most people do not seem to hear that any more. But it is a fact. Go to a concert in a good auditorium. Even if music is powerful or loud, what you hear in the concert hall with big symphony orchestras or jazz groups, it floats. Is that the right word, ‘floats’?
Enjoy the Music.com™: Perhaps. Go on, please.
Lee: The beauty of great music is in small details, the way sound floats. The harmonic details.
Enjoy the Music.com™: And these sonic details and musical subtleties are what your work seeks to reproduce in each of your cable designs as a collection of cables, a ‘system’ of cables,
as it were. Is that it ?
Enjoy the Music.com™: What do you think about the people who say that ‘wire is wire’ and [that] all cables are the same or, at least, make no real difference in the way you hear music reproduced?
Lee: Maybe there are a lot of deaf people who still like music (laughs).
Enjoy the Music.com™: This is an old and, no doubt, boring topic.
Lee: Yes, and the only thing I can say is that the other good cable makers out there know. Just like you and people with great ears… They know that sound is a very complex thing that will always surprise you the more you work with it.
Enjoy the Music.com™: The ‘surprise’ is how great the differences are between one cable and another?
Lee: Well, I guess so, but I meant that sound and music is the most complex kind of information that humans regularly deal with.
Enjoy the Music.com™: Don’t stop there, please.
Lee: Well, what can I say more (laughs).
Enjoy the Music.com™: Why is music and sound so complex?
Lee: That’s difficult to answer.
Enjoy the Music.com™: Try, okay?
Lee: I was a musician when I was younger, a violinist. If
you do not play an instrument, you do not know how many
things you have to think about all at once if you are going
to be a good musician ! You have to think about how you
hold your instrument and fingering and tone and, most of all,
how you want each note to sound… the feeling of the note,
the feeling of the instrument and your body, too. Everything
about music is about feeling. It is not just technical, what
notes to play, but emotion. And that is what you hear in the
music. Feeling. And feeling is complex.
Enjoy the Music.com™: Go on.
Lee: Well, music comes from everywhere… it is inside
composers and musicians and listeners. It is inside the
[musical] instruments, too, and inside microphones and
cables and equipment that all record it… inside the
equipment that reproduces it, also!
Enjoy the Music.com™: This is a novel way of looking at music.
Lee: It’s true, I think, because music is not just amazing
because it is beautiful. It is beautiful because it is an
amazing collection of sounds that are weird or wild and
going in different [sonic] directions at once (laughs).
Enjoy the Music.com™: This is the complexity you meant a moment ago, then?
Lee: Sure, but there’s a lot more to say. I just don’t know
how to say it all.
Enjoy the Music.com™: I admired your cables years before you started up your present company at Acoustic Zen. You seem to be a cable designer who is sensitive to the delicate nuances of music that reside within, or alongside, the dynamic and percussive ‘slam’ that also defines truthful, ‘live’ musical experiences.
Lee: I try to do that. Thank you.
Enjoy the Music.com™: You may not agree, but I’m always a bit startled at how distinct and unique each of the few genuinely great audio cables are from one another. Despite a more or less agreed upon goal [for cables], sonic neutrality, there is still a great deal of what you’ve called art involved in the reproduction of musical sound. And that cable ‘art’ creates enormous sonic and musical distinctions.
Lee: I hope when you hear my ‘reference two’ cables you will like them better than what I did before.
Enjoy the Music.com™: I have a feeling that many of the things that you know about the creation of cables is difficult if not impossible to teach an apprentice. How do you preserve and pass on what you’ve learned over your long career?
Lee: Maybe that is what art is all about something that cannot be taught to another person but only found from a single point of view.
Enjoy the Music.com™: So you see your sonic point of view as unique and individual?
Lee: I guess so, but part of this art, maybe, is learning what makes music inside cables, speakers, and different sound systems and even inside of strange rooms and spaces. So the ‘Robert Lee approach’ is only one point of view. For me, and this is only me, okay… I have a responsibility to know all points of view that make beautiful music because music makes us feel happy to be alive (laughs).
Enjoy the Music.com™: That might sum it all up. Thank you, Robert, for taking time to talk today.
Lee: I always like to talk about cable-design work. (It is) about making music. I am Buddhist so I think the universe is all about music (laughs). I really do. It is music top to bottom. Without any end or limit. So I guess I feel a little bit like a musician in what I do (laughs). It is probably what I was always supposed to do with my life. I try the best I can. I hope it makes someone happy.